Sophia Croft was that rare jewel, an eminently sensible person. Having found herself most happily established within the realm of matrimony, she did not yet hold marriage to be an inalienable necessity; there were some, she allowed, who could not approach the estate with equanimity, and others for whom it grew to become a burden. Bachelors and spinsters found her company restful, for she did not indulge in that common sport of married women, and matchmake all her friends and relations. With her they were safe from persecution.
Despite her tolerant views on the subject of matrimony, however, there was one bachelor for whom her heart did harbour some uneasiness. She could not quite feel that her brother Frederick was one of nature’s bachelors, or that he found his unmarried state congenial. To be sure, many naval officers were not women’s men, finding them either tiresome or unnecessary, and left their wives on shore for years upon end. But others pined for their families and lived for the weeks they might spend together on shore between postings, and some lucky few carried their wives upon the sea with them, never to be parted. Such had been the fate of young Sophia Wentworth, who had thrown aside her land shoes and followed the drum for love of her handsome naval beau, the now Admiral Croft.
Sophia was older now, and her good sense had always put her beyond the reach of the heights of romantic fancy. And in good faith she had to own that she knew little of the adult Frederick; her memories of her brother were of a precocious youngster, full of high spirits and dash. Perhaps she read his countenance incorrectly, upon such occasions where they were able to meet, and perceived some lack of happiness there that did not exist. Perhaps he was content with his rising naval star and saw no need to couple his name to another’s.
Yet the feeling persisted, and for some years she sustained this unease on his behalf. Upon the seas with the Admiral, caught up in the war against the French, and stationed for some years in the East Indies, she lacked the ability to make inquiries, and other considerations must naturally take precedence. However, that action was at last wound up, and the Crofts found themselves at liberty to launch themselves upon English soil again.
They came at first to Shropshire, to the bustling vicarage where Sophia’s brother Edward oversaw a prospering village and a growing number of Wentworths. His wife Jane, a dear plump woman with a comfortable laugh and a carrying soprano voice, was exceedingly willing to unfold the mystery of Frederick’s solitude.
“For you see, sister,” she said, bouncing a babe upon her knee, “it was before my time, but Edward has often spoken of it. He says that Frederick’s Anne was a sweet woman, not at all grand like her sister or her father – oh, the stories Edward tells of the Elliots are most diverting, though sometimes I think my dear husband has almost too wicked a tongue for a vicar – Henry, get down from there this instant, you will fall and break your head – but where was I?”
“You were telling me of Anne,” Sophia reminded her, gently disentangling little Eliza’s sticky fingers from her gown.
“Yes! Well, the Elliots lived at Kellynch Hall, very grand and I would like to see their gardens – I like a garden myself though I scarce have time to tend mine these days, perhaps when the children are grown, but there you have it! But Anne, Edward says it was a true love match between her and Frederick. He says Frederick was used to always say she was his north star, his guiding light in a moonless sky – which is the sort of thing young lovers always do say, isn’t it?”
Sophia owned that it was indeed.
“Of course Frederick had no money then, and only his prospects to live on, which is probably why she threw him over. When I met him he was skin and bones, looking for all the world like a consumptive. Losing her hit him hard, poor thing, though he has recovered from it well. I daresay she would eat her heart out now if she saw him.”
Sophia went away and sat in Jane’s garden in the afternoon sunshine, and thought about her brother. His career had gone from strength to strength, and he had made his fortune as she had always known he would; there are some men who are made for the risk and glory of a career in arms, and from boyhood Frederick had possessed the mettle.
A letter had come to them that day from Frederick, who like the Crofts was soon to be set upon soil again. He declared his intention of coming to visit both Edward and Sophia, and of finding a wife among their acquaintance. “For,” he wrote, “I have at last the space and inclination to mend my lonely state.”
Having heard Jane’s tale, Sophia tapped the letter against her lips, lost in contemplation. Perhaps she should hold to her long practice, and refrain from meddling. She did not believe that only one person in the world could bring happiness to another, and a youthful engagement quickly broken might not signify in the least.
Yet Frederick had stayed all these years unmarried, when he might have had any number of beautiful, accomplished, lovely women; and there had always been that something in his eye, or in the set of his shoulders on a winter’s night, that had worried her.
There was surely no harm in venturing to Kellynch Hall. With some weeks yet before Frederick's arrival, Sophia would like to meet the woman who had captured his heart, the woman who had been – for however short a time – his north star. If she be married with a house as crowded as Jane and Edward’s, then so be it.
But if she was not –
Well. Stranger things had come to pass, and love once found might yet be sought.
Sophia Croft smiled, folded her brother’s letter, and went to find her husband.
“There is a question I have wished to ask you,” she said, her voice shy.
Sophia hid her smile. She had been expecting the question from Frederick for some time, but she thought that he already knew the answer – had, perhaps, known the answer from the moment he first received her letter bearing the direction of Kellynch Hall.
“About Frederick,” she said, and put a hand over Anne’s, to help her find the words.
“Yes,” Anne said. “When you – when you came to Kellynch, did you know about us?”
Sophia could have spoken so many times over the past months, but she had stayed her hand. She was no matchmaker, to throw two people together who should not be joined. If Anne and Frederick were meant to be once again, they would muddle it out between them, and come to their happiness without her meddling with their sails. True, she had had a nasty fright when it looked as if Frederick might stumble backwards into an understanding with that Musgrove girl, who she had been convinced he cared not a penny for beyond idle inclination; but he was a man grown and his choices must be his own.
Now she sat hand in hand with a true sister, whose sense and marital bliss mirrored her own. Frederick had given her not only a sister, but a friend; and she smiled at Anne in pure contentment, glad beyond measure that her small finger in the wind had put them on the way to mending their broken hearts.
“Yes,” she said. “I knew from Jane and Edward that Frederick had met with a reverse here at Kellynch Hall that broke his heart and turned him from thoughts of matrimony. I knew also that Edward thought you a dear sweet girl, and that if Frederick loved you, you were like to be an uncommon woman. I thought I should like very much to make your acquaintance.”
Anne’s smile was soft at the edges, curling up and making her look every bit the blushing bride she was. “And – perhaps a little more than that.”
“Perhaps,” Sophia agreed. “He is my baby brother, and I am fond of him. If I had found you to be a designing, mercenary baggage who used him shamefully, or a content matron with seven children, I should have thought no more on it.”
“Who has seven children?” Frederick asked, appearing on the tail of this confidence.
“You someday, I should hope,” Sophia said. “If you wish it, and Anne wish it. I quite like being an aunt to a promising collection of jackanapes.”
She watched the way Frederick looked at Anne, the way they both flushed in a way that could not be entirely attributed to the fire, and she smiled.
“I do not think I ever thanked you,” Frederick said later, when Anne had been temporarily borne away by an insistent nephew. “For meddling.”
Sophia tucked her hand into his elbow, and leaned her forehead against his shoulder. “What are elder sisters for?”
Together, they watched Anne laugh with her nephew, luminous in her happiness, a ship at last come safely to harbour.
Sophia smiled, and was content.